@jon I worked with Catapult Design on some projects in West and East Africa, one with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. While I feel lucky to have been able to do so, my experience was mixed. On the plus side is the travel, assuming you love travel, to remote regions you probably otherwise would never see. I understand your fascination with designing for other cultures - it is just as interesting as it sounds. When designing for a culture different from you own, you are forced to put aside any assumptions about what you think a product should be, or what your target user group might want. Given vast cultural differences, on the ground research is very a important not-to-be skipped step. Just like learning a new language, the immersion aspect of living in the place for which you are designing would be helpful in this regard. I believe that’s why BoP-serving design firms like Proximity, iDE, and 17Triggers have in-country offices. You may want to see if they are hiring - but I would also issue some serious warnings.
Working in international development as an Industrial designer, or even an engineer is extremely specialized with very few job prospects. There’s a bit more in UX, Graphic, and Service, but still not a ton. Think hard about if you are willing to move frequently for these scattered jobs, assuming you can break through the highly competitive pool of applicants. If working outside the US, be prepared to expect less pay, almost anywhere else, especially low in a developing country. Money’s not everything, but if you ever want to move back, you might find it difficult to leverage a foreign salary for US job. As a US citizen, you will technically also be expected to continue paying US taxes on top of those of whichever country you move to. Some counties in Europe have tax rebates for foreigners - but the paperwork can be complicated. We are unfortunately one of the only countries in the world with this draconian law.
Read more here: Only Two Countries Do This Appalling Thing—And the U.S. Is One of Them - Doug Casey's International Man
Development work is also subject to political tides which influence donor funding. For example, I know the conservative majority in the US government has directly affected US Development Aid money, a big source of funding for this type of work. The effectiveness of “aid” in general can be a loaded, complex topic to work through. I don’t believe it is net positive or negative but really depends on the strategy of its application. For example, it was probably good to send food aid to Haiti after the earthquake, but bad to keep doing so for years after, because it destroyed the business of local food-producing industries, creating dependency on foreign influence. Even products “designed for the poor” can feel a bit patronizing and easily go terribly wrong. I haven’t seen exact numbers, but I would assume that an extremely high percentage of products in this category are abject failures due to lack of customer understand, wrong assumptions, lack of prior art research, and poor sustainment plans. There are definitely exceptions, for example products found in e4c’s Solution Library, a vetted data base of BoP-focused products. In my view, the more successful products are the typically the ones developed in tight-knit collaboration with a local community. I recommend reading the work of Paul Pollock who founded iDE, to learn more. He formed one of the largest, most successful business in this arena with an empathy-based approach to designing for these undeserved communities.
There’s another unfortunate issue with regards to this type of work in your portfolio. While a product designed for Africa might be wildly successful in the local market, it could appear badly designed or rudimentary to the western eye, especially if locally fabricated. This can create confusion without proper explanation.
This work can can be difficult, at times isolating, but ultimately rewarding if you choose to pursue it. Just bear in mind some of the harsh realities. Here is a google group which sometimes posts product-type jobs. Redirecting to Google Groups